October 30, 2010

"IN QUESTIONS OF POWER THEN....":

Nation-Building: RATIFICATION: The People Debate the Constitution, 1787-1788 by Pauline Maier (RICHARD BROOKHISER, 10/29/10, NY Times Book Review)

[M]aier’s subtitle directs our attention to the people, and she devotes time to Americans who stepped onto history’s stage only for this drama. At several conventions important speeches were made by back-benchers who sat quietly through most of the proceedings, then gave their judgment. Jonathan Smith of western Massachusetts said he knew “the worth of good government by the want of it.” There was “a time to sow and a time to reap,” and if the Constitution were not ratified now, “we shall never have another opportunity.”

Maier also covers the media campaign for and against. America’s newspapers were lopsidedly Federalist, but New York’s Antis ran “the only prominent organized group that worked across state lines,” disseminating critical essays and trying to coordinate strategy. The war of words enlisted a woman, Mercy Otis Warren, a Massachusetts bluestocking, who compared the Constitution to “shackles on our own necks.” Her fellow Antis found her writing “too sublime & florid.” The level of popular interest in contested states was high. One New York newspaper wrote that “almost every man is now a politician, and can judge for himself.”

Politics is a contact sport, and Maier shows a lot of rough stuff. Federalists in some states hired convention secretaries whose minutes mutilated the speeches of Antis, or suppressed them altogether. Newspaper editors who ran political stories that readers didn’t like were threatened with canceled ads and subscriptions. Mobs in Philadelphia, Albany and New York City trashed buildings and roughed up the un-likeminded. Happily, no one was killed.

Both sides, Maier believes, won something. The Constitution prevailed, but the spirited resistance encouraged the First Congress to propose the amendments now known as the Bill of Rights. Maier does not lard her conclusion with Big Thoughts, so let me rush in. The ratification process was a tribute to what Nathan Dane of Massachusetts, a reluctant convert to the Constitution, called “the attention of this intelligent people.” Elites who disdain or ignore their fellow citizens come to grief. Witness the mess of the European Union, made and run by Brussels wire-pullers. Americans who tut-tut about our political process sometimes have a point — we can always do better —but sometimes they go too far. The process was not that different in 1787-88, and we did all right.


"...let no more be heard of confidence in man, but bind him down from mischief by the chains of the constitution."



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Posted by Orrin Judd at October 30, 2010 7:22 AM
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